Jewish Studies before Jewish Studies @Fordham: Interview with Professor Mary Callaway

This year, Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies is celebrating its fifth anniversary.  But before the formal founding of the CJS, many professors, students, librarians, and others taught, studied, and cultivated the study of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history and culture at Fordham.  This blog series features interviews with some of these people and celebrates their lasting contributions to the university.  

This interview features Mary Callaway, Professor of Hebrew Bible in Fordham’s Theology Department, a department she chaired for many years. Professor Callaway began her studies at St. John’s College in Annapolis and came to Union Theological Seminary for her doctorate, and then began teaching at Fordham in the late 1970s, while writing her dissertation. She has been on the faculty ever since, teaching Hebrew Bible, midrash, and other courses in the Theology Department and the Honors Program!

When did you arrive at Fordham and what was Fordham like at the time?

I was writing my dissertation in 1977 when I received a call from the chair of Fordham’s Theology Department asking if I would teach a course in Hebrew reading, and one in “Judaism in the Hellenistic-Roman Period,” because the adjunct who had been covering those courses was suddenly not available. The department chair had called a notable Roman Catholic scholar of New Testament asking for names. The scholar, with whom I had worked, gave my name, assuring the Chair that even though I was female and Protestant I could do the job well! Within three years the department had a full-time position in Old Testament, and at the end of the search I was hired, the second woman and first non-Catholic in the department. All of the men but two were priests. There were about 80 graduate students, mostly clergy doing systematic theology, with about ten doing New Testament. Biblical studies meant learning to do exegesis using the original languages, on the 19th century German seminary model. It was rigorous, but from our perspective today, quite narrow. From the beginning, I felt welcome in the department and was mentored by senior scholars. Presidents O’Hare and McShane were always supportive, and appreciated my husband Jamie, who is an Episcopal priest.

In the early 80’s the undergraduate population was homogeneous, mostly white and Catholic. The core required 3 theology and 3 philosophy courses. The first two theology courses were somewhat similar to our two now, though the precursor to Faith and Critical Reason was more about faith than critical reason. The third course was chosen from an offering of contemporary subjects which included marriage, and “world religions,” and the students liked it best.

A short tale showcases the difference between then and now. In the first semester of my adjunct teaching I was pregnant with my first child, but not showing. For second semester, the chair had asked me to teach two sections of the undergrad core class “Tradition and Crisis in the Old Testament”; I have no idea what I was thinking when I agreed! Midway through the semester, at the beginning of spring break, Daniel was born by C-section. My husband and I paid a friend who was on sabbatical from his university to take my classes for the week after spring break, and then I was back in the classroom for the rest of the semester. Four years later, after I had been hired on a tenure-track line, I was pregnant with Hannah. I was done with Superwoman; this time I took a year off, with full support of the department. The university had no maternity policy, so they used disability for a semester. Over my years at Fordham, I have been so glad to see how different it has become for faculty in their child-bearing years.

Your area of teaching and research is the Hebrew Bible and midrash (biblical interpretation). What led you to this field?

Looking back, I can now see a clear pattern, repeated over the course of years. I was led to midrash in my years as an undergraduate at St. John’s College (Annapolis). With no departments or majors, and a set curriculum of “great books” for everyone, it was a campus alive with intellectual conversation. So it wasn’t unusual that there was an extra-curricular study group on Genesis, led by Simon Kaplan, a brilliant, elderly German Jewish scholar. In the course of a semester, meeting once a week, he barely got beyond the first few verses of Genesis 1 because there was so much to talk about! Why does the Torah begin with bet instead of aleph? Why is the first phrase ambiguous? This kind of rich texture, reading across centuries, and devotion to the text, was news to me, though I had grown up in a clergy house with knowledge of “Old Testament.”  The next step was an extra-curricular course in biblical Hebrew. By my senior year I knew that I had to go on to graduate study.

Graduate study in Bible in those days was relentlessly Protestant. Though Union Theological Seminary is across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary, there was no formal connection between the schools. However, a fellow doctoral student at Union was Jewish, and offered to lead a study group in the basics of rabbinic commentaries. We would meet in the early evening, study for a few hours and then continue the conversation over Heinekens. Learning the basics of Hillel’s rules of interpretation was transformative, and allowed us to see how Jewish much of the New Testament is. Back in the late sixties, that was news. We called our sessions “the light to the gentiles.”

In addition to this life-changing enrichment of my graduate classes, I had the benefit of my mentor, Jim Sanders, who did his doctoral training at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and had also studied in Israel. I remember a Hebrew reading class in which he explained that the Masoretic notes in the margin were there “to guard the text” against well-meaning scribes who might want to correct a problem. This was in direct contrast to the scholarly notes at the bottom of the page, which described how the ancient versions varied and often encouraged an emendation of the biblical text. So, it turned out that the page layout of the Hebrew Bible we were all using showcased a crucial difference between rabbinic tradition and modern critical scholarship. This dialogue between ancient and contemporary approaches was formative for me as a scholar. In a graduate program that was largely based on nineteenth and twentieth century Protestant German scholarship, I was most fortunate to be formed by these counter-voices.      

Your first book was titled Sing, O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash. More recently, you published a book titled Jeremiah Through the Ages. Can you share what led you to write each of these books and what you hope readers learn from them?

My training emphasized the ancient Near Eastern origins of biblical traditions, which of course I found exciting, but my work with Jewish scholars had led me to see the Bible differently: not as the triumphant climax of ancient near eastern history, but rather as part of a long chain of living traditions. I wanted to argue that the process of reinterpreting ancient Near Eastern traditions that was so formative in ancient Israel continued in the work of the biblical authors, except that they were rewriting Israelite traditions. The dissertation was a case study in how this process worked. It traced the tradition of the barren women who bore important sons, first in the Tanakh, then in Second Temple literature, then in Philo’s idea of spiritual conception, in Luke (Mary’s virginity as a midrashic development), and finally in rabbinic midrashic tradition of the seven barren women. My thesis was simple, but radical for its time: some of the ways of thinking that shaped the texts of the Hebrew Bible are similar to the ways of thinking used by both Jews and Christians in antiquity to interpret those texts. In other words, biblical thinking was already midrashic thinking. More provocatively to Christian scholars: midrashic thinking is in many ways like biblical thinking.

Early in my career an entirely new field came into existence in biblical studies. Reception history was first known in English departments and only came to biblical studies in the 80’s. Its goal is to document and analyze the significance and effects of a given text, in politics, art, popular culture, and religion. It asks the question of what difference this text has made in the world. Jeremiah Through the Centuries (2020) came from a challenge by a dear friend from graduate school who was one of the editors of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries. The assignment was to write a commentary that picked up where traditional commentaries left off, exploring the ways that the biblical Jeremiah has been expanded and transformed from antiquity to the present. The question is how Jeremiah, both text and character, have left indelible marks on culture. I had published a few articles on Jeremiah in midrashic interpretation, and was intrigued by the project. Little did I know what I was in for! The scope of the project, the languages involved in the primary sources, delving into political controversies, art history and religious debates, deciphering old scripts, seemed to keep expanding. The initial task was to find significant reception for every chapter in Jeremiah, all 52 of them, but the final task was to cut back what I had found. Trips to libraries and museums in Paris, London and of course New York had yielded a trove of stories, art, devotional literature, political commentary and more. The greatest challenge of writing the book was resisting the rabbit holes that beckoned me to take a detour. My greatest pride is the illustrations, all 68 of them, from all over the world, including a 14th century Islamic picture of “Armia resurrecting a donkey,” and a Holbein cartoon of Erasmus as Jeremiah! One significant discovery was about Jeremiah’s so-called “Confessions” – his prayers and tirades against what God was asking of him. For nineteen centuries most exegetes criticized Jeremiah for his “blasphemous talk,” and warned readers that it was sinful. Then, in the blossoming of German Romanticism in the late 19th century, a German biblical scholar wrote that Jeremiah’s words were a commendable outpouring of genuine emotion and therefore commendable! Since then Jeremiah’s harsh words against God have been read approvingly as honest prayer. I find that some historical perspective about our ideas can help keep us humble.        

You teach in both the Theology Department and in the Honors Program.  What courses have you taught and what are some of your favorite texts or topics to teach? 

My signature undergraduate course has been “Introduction to the Old Testament.” I love taking students by surprise, beginning not with the Bible but the Mesopotamian creation story, to help them realize that Genesis 1 is a richer, more complicated text than they had imagined. They tend to have an idea of revelation as a form of magic, and I want to nudge them to the idea that God uses history and human culture as vehicles of revelation. One persistent question early in the course is, “Who taught the Israelites how to talk about God?” As the semester progresses, the question is what new ways Israelites developed to talk about their wild, peculiar God. One that surprises and deeply engages the students is the persistent motif of talking back to God, beginning with Abraham challenging God about the plan to destroy Sodom. Students are also fascinated by the idea of midrash, and the idea that Jews bring a sense of humor along with reverence to their Torah study. They always seem engaged when I diverge from the lesson plan to tell a midrash. Some of my happiest memories are of Jewish students describing how the semester of studying the Tanakh drew them back into their faith.

Another favorite is “Foundational Texts,” the first-year Honors course. It’s a seminar with twelve freshmen around a seminar table, reading only primary texts. The syllabus includes Homer, Greek tragedy, Virgil and the Bible, among others. It’s thrilling for me to watch these smart eighteen-year old scholars move from their black and white vision of reality to beginning to embrace the discomfiting color gray.

One of my favorite parts of graduate teaching has been the language classes, which meant intermediate Hebrew reading and biblical Aramaic. The Aramaic course was engaging for me because I pitched biblical Aramaic as a stage in linguistic development from Bible to Targum, so I was able to draw the students into a bit of early midrash.  My favorite language courses were on reading Hebrew narrative, when I tried to move students away from translating toward real reading, attending to the many subtle literary techniques of biblical narratives. 

It seems almost quaint now, but in the mid-eighties through the nineties I developed several graduate courses in literary criticism and the Hebrew Bible. Of many happy memories from those heady days one that stands out is co-mentoring a doctoral dissertation with Richard Gianonne in the English Department titled, “Telling Stories About God: Narrative Voice and Epistemology in the Hebrew Bible and in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene and Cynthia Ozick.” The student did a sophisticated literary analysis of the Court History (2 Sam 7-20); the mentoring and the defense, in the English Department, was one of my most intellectually engaging experiences at Fordham.

One high point of graduate teaching for me was a course I developed on the Akedah (Genesis 22). Twenty centuries of readers struggling with that sublimely horrifying text reveals, among other things, the rich world of ideas and stories that one short biblical text can generate. One surprise for my students was discovering how consistently those interpretations became attached to the biblical text, traveling with it through time as if written between the lines. In fact, they were written between the lines in the medieval Glossa Ordinaria and in the margins in the Mikraot Gedolot. We see this in the developing persona of Isaac as willing victim, which began in the persecutions of Antiochus, was adopted by early Christian writers, and persisted through the medieval pogroms into early modernity. A favorite memory was the class when students performed part of a medieval mystery play enacting an emotional dialogue between Abraham and Isaac.

The other favorite graduate course is the basic M.A. course in Old Testament, which always included a good number of Jesuit Scholastics and other adult learners. They began with the classic Christian idea that the “Old Testament” was the prologue, and I loved watching as they discovered the theological riches from ancient Israel, and were constantly correcting their own presuppositions about the Bible.

You are a beloved teacher across campus.  Students adore you, and many of them say that the course they took with you changed their lives. This is true of both current students as well as those you taught decades ago, who still remember your courses.  Can you share some of your secrets?

This is very generous!  My teaching has evolved over the years, and most of what I know I have learned from my students and colleagues. Teaching for me is a form of ministry, and the aim is to challenge as well as nurture. In my grad school days I often taught on Sunday mornings in my local Episcopal church, bringing some of the basic approaches of biblical scholarship to adults. Those experiences formed me as a teacher to be alert to where my students were intellectually and emotionally, and how far I could challenge them. A major joy of teaching at Fordham is its Jesuit identity, which has meant that a leitmotif of my classes is always what it means for people of faith to read the Bible critically. Just last semester a student in a course where we were reading the Bible along with Homer and Greek tragedy, asked, “Are we allowed to read the Bible this way?” Of course, every teacher loves it when a smart student mentions the elephant in the room!

In the early 90’s I became interested in the shift in educational theory that changed the focus in the classroom from the academic subject to the learner. I went to some conferences, read books, and secured a grant to engage an expert to help the department design a course in pedagogy for graduate students. The idea that we teach subjects rather than students is now the norm, but it was a major shift that happened well after my graduate education, which was based on the older European model. The move to a learner-centered theory of teaching was transformative for me. One effect was to break the fourth wall, allowing me to talk about what is going on in the class. Sometimes I would stop the class and say, “This isn’t working. What’s wrong?” and listen to what the students said. If the class bombed the midterm, we would have a conversation about it and I would offer a make-up on some of the essay questions. If a student submitted a sub-par paper, I encouraged a meeting to plan a rewrite. I tried to give lots of second chances, because so much learning happens when you revise your work. I always require a few sentences of metacognition, in which students reflect on what went wrong in the exam and what they had learned from the experience. Finally, a crucial part of teaching for me is being aware of how historical-critical study of the Bible might be affecting my students, and being real with them about it. Meeting with a student wrestling with the implications of the course on their faith has always been one of the most humbling yet exhilarating experiences for me.

Finally, I’m sure I benefit from my subject. Students expect a class in Bible to be pious and boring, so if it’s full of intriguing ancient Near Eastern parallels, some reception history, and humorous midrashim, they are pleasantly surprised.

You also served as Chair of the Theology Department, and many of the initiatives you spearheaded in that position, such as the end-of-year day-long retreat, remain mainstays of the department.  What are some of the things you’re most proud of from this period in your career?

Life is full of surprises, and we don’t know ahead of time what we’re going to be called to do. In retrospect, I can see that my job was to help change the culture of the department into a community of scholars and teachers. When I first came to Fordham, faculty meetings were tense and sometimes erupted in shouting matches. I was among a small group of “young Turks” who wanted to make things better in the department. It began with the small gesture of bringing cookies to the meetings (low blood sugar feeds irritability!). Then a group of us led by Joe Lienhard tightened and codified the procedures in the graduate program. When I was Chair I worked with Harry Nasuti to design a retreat day at Mitchell Farm, a bucolic set of houses and grounds in Mahopac, N.Y. owned by the Jesuits. Along with the conversations in small groups, we had an informal worship service and then cooked dinner together using outdoor grills. I think at Mitchell Farm the idea took hold that community is precious, but it doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it. Then for years the beloved department secretary, Edie Mauriello, hosted a beginning of the year party at her house, which also built community. Jamie and I took that over when Edie could no longer do it, and we had the space. It was a sit-down dinner where people could enjoy long conversations at round tables, and it lasted for hours. One of the things I’m most proud of –and grateful for – is that we are a department where people talk together and learn from each other, but can also disagree with one another and find common ground. I had lots of training growing up, as my mother was executive director of the YWCA, and she often had difficult board members. She taught me by example about building community.

Another significant part of the Department’s history that I’m proud of is the move from our cramped quarters in Collins Hall to Duane Library. In Collins we were on two floors and shared some common space with the Philosophy Department. About twenty years ago we were given the chance to move to the ground floor of the old library, which had been vacant for several years. We were originally given only part of the space, but Harry Nasuti and I pressed for the whole space, working with the head of the project, Joe Scaltro. Joe was surprised that I wanted a full kitchen, but I reminded him that images of food and feasting are common biblical tropes for the divine presence. I’m most proud of how much common space we have, and how our physical space facilitates conversations among students and faculty.

In what ways has Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic missions impacted the work that you do, in the classroom and in your research?

Teaching at a Jesuit university has been formative for me. The seminars on Ignatian pedagogy, the ethos of the campus, the discourses we use, and the presence of young Jesuit Scholastics together with seasoned elders have all shaped me as a teacher and scholar. For me the discipline of magis, the commitment to excellence, is enriched by the Ignatian freedom of finding God in all things. And of course cura personalis, which has shaped me to be more alert to how what’s happening in my classroom might be impacting my students’ lives.

One specific impact has been the habit of going on an 8-day silent retreat in the summer, at a Jesuit house on the coast of Massachusetts. There I was introduced to the Jesuit practices of recollecting the day, and of discernment of spirits. For years I had been walking across campus after class thinking how bad it was, and what an awful teacher I was. Then one day I stopped, probably struck by sight of the sun on the spectacular fall foliage, and had an Ignatian moment. What if, I thought, you think again about the class that just happened, and find in it a moment of grace instead of recrimination? It took me a few minutes of recollecting, but then I realized that a shy student had spoken for the first time that day. I could easily have missed that moment and what it meant for the student’s development. After that, I cultivated a habit of reviewing my class as I walked back to my office, naming the Ignatian moment of grace that had happened that day.

Mary Callaway, speaking with Father Nicholas Lombardi and Frank Hsu at the 2019 Convocation, when Mary received the Bene Merenti medal, celebrating 40 years of work at Fordham University.

You’re an active member of Columbia University’s Hebrew Bible Seminar.  Can you share more about that community and how it has enhanced your time at Fordham?

The seminar was started in 1968 by a group of faculty at Columbia, Union, JTS, Hebrew Union College, NYU, Yale and other schools within driving distance. It was an even mix of Jewish and Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible who wanted to have dinner together, listen to a scholarly paper and have a lively conversation. I joined in 1980, the year I became full-time at Fordham. In those days it was very male and the discussion after the paper could become contentious and even heated. Senior scholars pressed young scholars hard, almost hazing them. One legend tells of a senior scholar who always fell asleep at the beginning of the paper and woke up just as it was finishing to ask an astute question! I saw it happen. Over the years the ethos changed and it became more hospitable, with richly productive conversation. Being part of the seminar has been formative for me as a scholar of Bible because I was immersed from the beginning in Jewish perspectives. The kinds of theological questions that my graduate training emphasized were here replaced by lively issues about ancient Near Eastern influences, particularly light shed on a biblical text by evidence from Akkadian or Ugaritic. Most humbling for me was the way my Jewish colleagues usually cited a biblical text in Hebrew without opening a Tanakh. In my early years I was the only person doing Hebrew Bible at Rose Hill, so this community has been formative for me as a scholar.

You’ll soon be retiring.  What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Fordham?

One memorable moment happened quite early in my teaching career, when a student somewhat aggressively challenged a point I had made. For a moment I froze, then some better angel prompted me to take it as an opportunity, allowing the class to see how my mind worked under pressure. There was a lively conversation, and real learning happened in that class.

Another memorable occasion is the commencement when I offered the invocation, standing on a wooden box. It was a formal but interactive prayer, based on the ancient Benedicite Dominum, in which I called on different majors and groups of students to “bless ye the Lord.” It turned out to be a very lively, noisy invocation. It was a risk, but after the noisy “Amen” Fr. McShane crossed the terrace and hugged me, joking that he hadn’t thought I was a Baptist!

In an ironic twist of history, some of my best memories are of faculty meetings, the very thing that horrified me when I started at Fordham. Whether at Mitchell Farm, or on a rainy Wednesday at a department meeting, being part of a group that can strongly disagree and keep working together to find a resolution for the common good is still thrilling for me.

What advice for the future do you have for current members of the Fordham family?

Treasure what is precious about Fordham, whatever that is for you, and work hard to preserve and strengthen it. Seek out people who have different perspectives and conversation partners who can challenge you. Cultivate the habit of Ignatian moments, stopping to reflect on what just happened, to say, “Wow!” or even to say a berakhah of gratitude.

Any thoughts about Jewish Studies @Fordham as we celebrate its fifth anniversary?

I was of course thrilled when the program in Jewish Studies began, and have loved watching it grow from seed to a flowering tree in five short years. I have learned so much from exhibits and lectures! Especially impressive is the way the programs range through history, from antiquity to now. The richly diverse programs are teaching the whole Fordham community that Jewish history and culture are not niche interests, but are a wonderful part of the intellectual world that we all share. Mazel tov!

Thank you, Mary, for this amazing interview, with so much wisdom, joy, and humor!